A Careless and Costly Decision

Updated: Jul 9, 2019

Palomar College’s $6.8 million budget shortfall this year should cause concern about the college’s fiscal health. When considering what factors led to the budget crisis, the opening of both the North and South Education Centers last year is a likely culprit.

The college’s expansion incurred significant additional expenses, and without enrollment growth to cover those costs, the college’s financial situation will continue to decline. That being said, future enrollment projections continue to look grim with summer enrollment trending at a loss of over 5% as compared to last year, while fall’s enrollment is on track to decline 3 or 4 percent.

According to a report produced under the direction of former VP Ron Perez, the college’s enrollment was predicted to increase by 7% after the centers opened. However, this same report voiced concerns that the forecasted enrollment gains may not be realized, thereby creating a $7 million shortfall.

What analysis did President Blake use to predict enrollment gains, and why did her prediction miss the mark?

In an earlier blog post, I asserted that President Blake’s insistence on making hurried, impulsive decisions without appropriate research and discussion was creating fiscal insecurity for the college. This conclusion was based partly on documents received from the District in response to a public records request.

In the fall of 2018, I submitted a public records request which asked for “all analysis – including, but not limited to feasibility studies, enrollment projects, and budget impact projection” related to opening both the South and North Education Centers in 2018. In response to this request, the college returned a single document – a draft of an enrollment projection for the North Education Center prepared in 2005 (thirteen years ago!). No document was returned for the South Education Center.

No feasibility study, no budget impact analysis, no estimation of the costs, and no current enrollment analysis for either of the centers. This is stunning given the fact that Palomar’s nearest competitors in the north and south parts of its District have grown and expanded their facilities dramatically in the last decade.

At the time President Blake was hired in June 2016, the plan was to open only the South Education Center in 2017 – 18, then wait three years before launching the North Education Center. That plan made sense. The three-year spacing between the two openings would have allowed the South Education Center to grow enrollment and become self-sufficient before expanding further.

Within a few months of being hired, Blake convinced the Governing Board, with very little discussion, data, or evidence, to change course and open both centers in 2018. An earlier blog post reveals that a majority of trustees are content with the amount of information that is provided to them, while two trustees voiced concerns that they are not getting sufficient evidence to make informed decisions.

The decision to open both centers had additional impact on the plans for both the Student Services One-Stop Shop and the Athletics Complex. At their October 2016 meeting, the Governing Board approved a five-year construction plan, which included a priority list for the outstanding projects. At that time, the Student Services One-Stop-Shop and the Athletics Complex were scheduled ahead of the North Education Center. However, five months later, the North Education Center leapfrogged over the two other projects, delaying the Athletics Complex and leaving Student Services in limbo.

The minutes of the Facilities Review Committee (FRC) from the fall of 2016 through the fall of 2017, show a dramatic shift at their March 16th, 2017 meeting. Prior to that March meeting the Athletics Complex and One-Stop-Shop were regularly updated, while the North Education Center wasn’t mentioned. After the March 16th meeting, the Athletics and Student Services projects dropped completely out of sight, while the North Education Center took center stage.

The decision to open both centers at the same time has created ongoing fiscal distress while stranding Student Services and leaving the old library -- a perfectly usable building -- abandoned.

Can Palomar College afford any more of President Blake’s ill-conceived and poorly analyzed decisions? And, if the majority of the Board won’t hold her accountable, who will?

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